Beyond elimination – rethinking democracy

That Donald Trump is a grave danger to humanity leaves no doubt. That his supporters and backers are criminal in their intention to ransack the world and blight the poor, the marginalised and the needy for their own gain is clear to see. We, as citizens of this Earth, are understandably preoccupied and urgently need to deal with these threats.

Yet, confronted with these criminals, their behaviour and its impact on millions of people, it is hard not to wish we could simply eliminate them. But elimination is and always has been the very way those criminals seek to rule the world. Don’t like what the media says about you? Revoke their right to be media. See others as the source of your problems? Build walls to exclude them. Not interested in negotiating peaceful solutions? Blast the troublemakers off the face of the earth.

Yes! We have to deal with the Trumps of this world. That cannot wait. But let not the looming catastrophe blind us to the fact that, above all, it is the functioning of the democratic system that needs fixing. We have a madman in the Oval Office because he was elected, at least by the electoral college, if not by the people. The British are lumbered with a catastrophic Brexit because a narrow majority of those who voted wanted out of the EU, at least that was the question they were asked to vote on. It takes courage, in the so-called free-world to say that democracy doesn’t work. The cry that goes up when democracy is challenged is that all else is far worse. Detractors are immediately disqualified by labelling them Nazis or Stalins. Such an unthinking, gut reaction fails to see that it is not democracy that is being called into question, but the way we implement it.

Let’s take a closer look at some of the shortcomings of a system that calls on parts of the population to delegate their voice and a considerable part of their power to decide and to act to a limited number of people. And in some cases, where so-called direct democracy is the rule, periodically calls on a part of the population to decide in favour of or against a particular course of action, like in the case of the Brexit referendum, but much more frequently in Switzerland.

Let’s first look at elections. There are many questions. Who gets a right to vote on those that represent everybody? Who gets the right to stand as a candidate? What influences people’s choices in voting? How can those choices be manipulated to the detriment of the general good? How are votes verified, collated or aggregated to produce what are seen as ‘reliable’ and ‘workable’ results? And to what extent can the choice of someone as a representative be subsequently revoked?

Replying to all these questions and many others would go way beyond the scope of this article. Suffice it to mention some of the dysfunctions recently raised. Many of the examples given here come from the US which may have lost its role as leader of the free-world but continues to show the way when it comes to dysfunctional democracy but also in how individuals and groups actively stand up for their rights and what is right.

Take the way the right to vote is being manipulated in the US. Artificial barriers are being set to exclude the poor, the marginalised and the uneducated supposedly to combat voter fraud. Territories are being carved up to give preference to one group over others. Then there is the shift from meaningful representation based on proclaimed policy and public debate to the showmanship of entertainers and would-be clowns. A laugh wins more votes than a cogent argument. Feeding on people’s fears and doubts trumps nuanced positions any day. Strongly polarised debates feed divisions and exclude any sensible dialogue or possible compromise. Then there is the shift away from truth as a solid foundation on which to judge and a move towards unverifiable and often changing ‘truths’ if not downright lies. There is the manipulation of public opinion via rumours and fallacious ad campaigns using social media by vested interests whether at home or abroad that target highly profiled individuals with tailor-made fear-mongering. And finally, there is the way certain institutions like the police, the justice department and the administration in general, including the health and the education systems, that repeatedly target specific groups, beating them into compliance and inaction.

Once representatives have been elected, the dysfunctions do not cease. The polarisation of politics into party systems historically had its advantages and was a natural outcome, but it has just as surely led to gridlocks in which governing, especially where consensus is required, is rendered impossible. Political party identity is necessarily based on accentuating differences and concentrating on divergences rather than on rallying around common points and agreement. Representatives are constantly prey to lobbying by vested interests with deep pockets and excessive media clout. Remains the questions of the extent to which representatives remain in tune with the concerns of those who elected them.

In those countries practising more direct forms of democracy, like Switzerland, the regular consultation of voters about key issues and the right of groups of citizens to launch a referendum or a public imitative is no guarantee of satisfactory decision-making. One of the main reasons for this is the binary nature of voting. You get to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ on complex packets of issues when a more nuanced answer would be the only satisfactory response. Another issue is the willingness of voters to spend time researching the subject they are to vote on. Despite well-made accompanying documentation and extensive media coverage, there is no guarantee voters will bother, especially when issues are complex and options not clear cut.

Recognising that the form of democracy needs revisiting would be a big step forward, however, there are so many interests vested in the existing system that even debating possible changes is going to take considerable courage.

Photo: the Landsgemeinde, Wikipedia.

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